Friday, October 02, 2015

Mann and Trollope disagree on plot

On my recent trip to England (about which more soon), I packed the second volume of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire, Barchester Towers, because if there's one rule I've established about overseas travel, it's to take a Victorian novel, and if there's a second, it's that it's best if that novel is one of Trollope's. At risk of sounding too much like the marketing person I am in my day job: there are few more reliable brands than that of Mr. Trollope. A novel of his in one's carry-on guarantees house of pleasantly diverting in-flight entertainment.

Right before and right after the trip, however, I was making an ascent of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, urged on and accompanied by my Twitter friends Caille Millner and Stephen Sparks. While you could make a case that Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901) is, in a sense, the last great nineteenth-century novel, The Magic Mountain could hardly be less Victorian. Oh, it mostly retains the realism and narrative omniscience of the Victorians, and it even carries a whiff of humorous irony not wholly foreign to Trollope's narrative voice. But in terms of its aims, structure, and plot--or lack thereof--it could hardly be more of a statement of something new, of a new idea of what novels might aim at and be. It is a novel less of people and social situations--though it presents plenty of both, frequently in amusing fashion--than of ideas and deep oppositions: between action and contemplation, vigor and lassitude, life and death.

All of which made me particularly interested, and entertained, when I hit upon a passage that linked Mann's book and Trollope's--and set the pair of authors on different sides than one would expect on a particular issue. To wit: plot, withholding, and readerly patience.

The passage from Barchester Towers is reasonably well known, to some extent a marker of Trollope's breakthrough as a writer: the confidence established by not just the choice to have his narrative voice offer the following statement, but also by the very tone, serious, yet loving and playful, of the voice itself, is what readers would come to think of as vintage Trollope. This, we think as we read it, is a voice we trust; it will neither mislead nor disappoint us. This passage comes fairly early in the novel, when pieces are by all means still in motion, fate's plans still obscure:
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realised? . . .

Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian. Otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.

I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.
Trollope here is not merely reassuring us: he's expanding the role of the narrator--no longer does the narrator, because of his willingness to share his omniscience, give us more information about any given moment than the characters in the novel have, but he also gives us his knowledge of the future. We are allies, says Trollope's voice here, and we agree that the point is the people, not the plot. It's a daring move, and one that works brilliantly. (It's also sly: it's not as if Trollope won't be withholding plenty from us--he's shown us one card, and by doing so distracted us from the rest of his hand.)

Mann, meanwhile, very late in his nearly plotless novel, makes the opposite case. Time has been one of his themes: how we understand it, experience it, relate it to others, and how dependent the sense of its passing is on our activity and attention. Here, at a well-judged moment of readerly impatience, he turns that theme explicitly to the art of storytelling:
But why this impatience? Not everything can be known right off. That must still be taken as one of the conditions of life and of storytelling, and surely no one is about to rebel against God-given forms of human understanding. Let us honor time at least to the extent that the nature of our story allows. There is not that much time left in any case, it's rushing by slapdash as it is, or if that's too noisy a way of putting it, it's whisking past hurry-scurry. A little hand measures our time, minces along as if measuring seconds; and yet, whenever it cold-bloodedly moves past a high-point without bothering to stop, that still means something, though God only knows what.
It's not that Mann is actually arguing for plot here, of course, but the effect is similar: let events happen as they will, without fast-forwarding or asking for oracles. Time reveals all, including not merely the day when the outcome of this novel is known, but the day when our reading itself ceases. Why rush ahead?

As a reader, much as I love Doctor Faustus, appreciate Buddenbrooks, and frustratedly admire The Magic Mountain, my affinities and my heart are with Trollope. As a person, watching autumn quietly settle in upon the land? I'm siding with Mann.

1 comment:

  1. I do enjoy reading Trollope (probably around 15 novels, maybe more, and maybe twice that number of his short stories), but as a reader and a person, also 'watching autumn quietly settle in upon the land" I'm wholeheartedly with Mann, and "Let events happen as they will."